I am going to miss the Winter Olympics.
I am going to miss the skiing and the skating and the jumping and the luging and the curling and the hockey. Oh, am I going to miss the hockey. (And the curling. Did I mention the curling?)
I didn’t think I’d feel this way before the Olympics began. In fact, it wasn’t too long ago when I made this joke.
How many days until we have to pretend to care about a bunch of winter sports b/c someone is wearing our flag down a mountain?— Dan Levy (@DanLevyThinks) December 16, 2013
Only, maybe I wasn’t joking. Americans just don’t care about skiing, skating and luging (and curling) and most of these athletic disciplines at any other time in our lives outside of once every four years during a fortnight we call the Winter Olympics.
Hell, most Americans barely care about hockey when it’s not at the Olympics anymore—and that is far and away the most popular winter sport in this or any country.
Figure skating? You want me to care about figure skating during the NFL playoffs? In March, should I write about the national championship in curling or college basketball?
There just isn’t the interest in these sports all the time, but put them all together in a town and call it the Olympics, and suddenly millions upon millions of people will stop everything to watch.
We should have this feeling more often. We should do this every year.
Wait…what? Did I just suggest we should have the Olympics every year? Nine weeks after saying that we pretend to care about these sports, I want to go through this again a year from now?
Yes. And no. But mostly yes.
When I was a kid, the Olympics were a delight because they really only came once every four years. The Summer and Winter Games would both be held in the same calendar year, giving us more than a three-year break between anything remotely called the Olympics.
Then, in 1986, the International Olympic Committee got wise to the idea that staggering the Olympics every two years to give the events on ice and snow—traditionally there has been far less interest in the Winter Olympics when compared to Summer—more of an independent global showcase.
In doing that, the IOC also managed to rejigger the Olympics cycle for the international sporting community. No longer were the Olympics just a four-year spectacle. By staggering the two events, the IOC created a two-year cycle of interest in Olympic events.
The question I find myself asking as the Sochi Games come to a close is, "Would it work every year?"
Would the Olympics work if staggered every other year, moving both the Summer and Winter Games onto a two-year cycle, giving us an Olympics every single year?
On its face, the suggestion seems preposterous. When I merely suggested writing this article, my editor replied, “You want to write about freestyle skiing more than once every four years?”
I would rather write about freestyle skiing than the hand sizes of NFL prospects, and I love the NFL. Sometimes it’s good to give other sports our attention. Some of these sports are really great, too.
Besides, there is human interest at the Olympics. There is a spirit that always manages to transcend athletic competition that we don’t usually get in domestic fixtures.
And part of the fun of the Olympics is finding those untold stories of great athletes from every corner of the globe doing incredible things to achieve their dreams. There are people who spend their entire lives trying to win a medal in a niche sport with very little funding because they flat-out love to compete. Why shouldn’t we celebrate that more than we do?
Why can’t we highlight something that amazing every year?
Granted, there a lot of factors in putting on an event as big as the Olympics, so it would never be as easy as I am making it sound. The logistical hurdles of hosting a different Olympic competition every year could be too hard to overcome, but the benefits may outweigh most of those concerns.
Here is a look at some of the pros and cons:
Pro: The TV Ratings Are Incredible
Something about the Olympics just finds a way to capture our attention and not let go. The Olympics transcend nearly everything else in sports in terms of both global interest and American television viewership.
And the Olympics are big business, too; without the backing of NBC and the money put out by international media superpowers, the Olympics would be an impossibility.
NBC bid an estimated $775 million to televise the Sochi Games, part of a package worth $4.38 billion to keep the Olympics through 2020. The Summer Games in Rio in 2016 were bid at $1.2 billion.
That’s for two weeks of programming. In the summer.
Would you like the Olympics more often?
All the major networks bid on the Olympics because they are a television goldmine. Granted, it’s no Super Bowl in terms of television ratings, but even in what many people consider a down season for Olympic ratings, NBC has been averaging around 20 million viewers per night for the duration of the event.
The Olympics are so popular that most other networks didn’t even bother putting original programming on against it. Those that did, lost.
Lest we forget, these events are all on tape delay. NBC packages the events that took place in Sochi throughout the day and presents them with a neatly tied Olympic bow, and still more people watch figure skating and giant slalom than the World Series or NBA Finals. Comparing these numbers to Vancouver when most of the marquee events were live is not necessarily a fair comparison. Down or not, the numbers have still been huge for NBC.
The live events on NBCSN have been great for the sport-specific network as well, breaking viewership records for the live coverage during the day. More than four million people watched the USA play Russia in hockey on NBCSN that began at 7:30 a.m. ET.
The women’s hockey gold-medal game, shown live on NBC, had 4.9 million viewers at noon on a Thursday. The semifinal between the USA and Canada on the men’s side had 2.1 million people watch the game via live stream online.
These are Winter Olympics numbers. The Summer Games, at least in America, always do better. Is there any reason to believe the ratings wouldn’t be there if the event was held more often?
Con: Olympics Fatigue
The idea of Olympics fatigue might be a palpable concern. There is a sense that people get tired of the Olympics after two weeks, and that traditional viewers can only handle a week to 10 days of prime-time sports before craving their scripted shows and reality slog.
TV ratings indicate a small dip as the Games move along, which could buoy the suggestion that people get tired of watching some of these niche sports. But it could also be an indication that certain nights just don’t have the same big-ticket events as others.
I have never understood why the Olympics needs to be as long as they are, and shortening the overall event to fewer days would make each day more exciting. When we watch a fireworks display, we enjoy the first few bursts of light before waiting around for the finale. The Olympics may have the same effect on casual viewers.
Having said that, Olympics fatigue may carry over from day to day, but it should not necessarily translate from year to year.
Holding each Olympics every two years would still give enough time without these events to make them feel special again. Two years seems like plenty of time to shake off the freestyle fatigue.
Pro: Awesome Things Are Awesome
We watch the Super Bowl every year because it is awesome. We have Christmas and New Year's Eve and our birthdays every year because getting presents and celebrating with family and friends are awesome.
Awesome things are awesome, and there is no reason to suggest that not having something for three years makes it more awesome during the fourth. The idea that absence makes the heart grow fonder is ridiculous in terms of athletic competition.
Now, granted, you couldn’t just call every event a major championship in golf or tennis and get people to watch.
The PGA couldn’t play at Augusta National every week and expect the same ratings they get for the Masters. But holding the Masters every four years in order to make it feel more special is equally as ludicrous.
Con: The Olympics Are Big—Really Big
There are world championships in every single Olympic discipline, and most of them get a fraction of the interest the same events will get in the Olympics. Part of the reason is because of the lore of an Olympic medal—and yes, part of that lore is the fact that very few people win them, or win multiple medals, because of the duration of time between each competition.
But the bigger part is because the Olympics become an all-encompassing collaboration of otherwise separate individual championships.
There is no other time when curling, hockey, figure skating and speedskating get together and share a patch of ice. Quite literally, the figure skaters and short-track speedskaters share the same ice in Sochi. That doesn’t happen at the World Championships.
There isn’t usually a luge and bobsled track a few meters from a ski jump, which shares a landing area with a cross-country track that finishes down the mountain from the moguls, halfpipe and super-G course.
Only the Olympics bring all these events together, and that takes a lot of planning, a lot of time and a lot of money.
Look at how long it took Russia to get ready for the Sochi Olympics. There are still hotels that aren’t finished, and the economic impact of bringing the Olympics to a city that’s not prepared to host it can have devastating effect on the locals.
Look at what happened to Greece after hosting the 2004 Olympics in Athens. That’s just one of many stories of cities that were crushed by the weight of the Olympics. The cost to host the event is in the billions and increasing with every new location, with years of preparation and very little return after the event is over.
What do some of these cities do with the venues when they are done? Turn them into apartments and office space? Make a “Hey, remember that time we hosted the Olympics and it nearly crippled our economy” tourist museum?
And now I want to add more cities to that list?
By hosting an Olympics every year, the IOC would need to have more locations available to host something that big. It might be impossible.
Or the IOC would have to be more realistic about its Olympic locations. London wasn’t devastated by hosting the Summer Games the way Athens was. Sochi may be a nightmare for some, but Vancouver seemed far more apt to host an event of this magnitude.
If the Olympics were awarded to cities with the proper infrastructure to host the Games—including, but not limited to, existing stadiums that can be modified to host specific events—the economic impact would not be as crippling.
Moreover, holding the event every two years would allow for cities to get back in the rotation much sooner. Imagine if the organizers in Sochi knew that a well-run Olympics could see the event return in 16 or 18 years. What if London got the Summer Games every 10 years?
Shortening the span of time between each Olympics would give each city a chance at hosting another Games within the traditional lifespan of the buildings they need to create in order to host the event. Consider it a form of Olympic recycling, which could only help the economic impact on the host cities.
Holding more Olympics probably wouldn’t save any failing economies around the world, but if planned properly, it shouldn’t make them any worse either.
Pro and Con: Impact on the Athletes
Let’s end with the most debatable topic of all: How would this impact the athletes?
The NHL already wants to take their players out of the Olympics, so how in the world would Gary Bettman and the league owners feel about their top talent going over to play international competition every two years instead of every four?
Would the top NBA stars that go to the Olympics be willing to participate if they had to go every other year? Would we run the risk of going back to sending B and C teams to international competitions because the schedule is too taxing on the professionals?
This is a big part of the reason why the Olympics were always supposed to be about amateur athletes participating. But with that ship sailing well into the night some decades ago, it would be a concern for the top athletes to compete every other year instead of every four years.
Though it certainly could work if they tried. In soccer, for example, the World Cup is held every four years—another event that would possibly benefit from behind held more often. Many European players consider the European Championships, held in the alternating two years from the World Cup, to be an even bigger international test.
Playing for your country would certainly need to become a greater priority for professional athletes, but one could make the case that it should be already. There should be no greater honor than representing your country, so if the best players don’t want to do it, there will be a long line of those who do.
In the more traditional Olympic sports, holding the Games more often would be a huge boon for the interest level—read: money—going into the sport.
Think about how many medals Michael Phelps would have if he had an Olympics every two years. Tell me Shani Davis doesn’t wish the Olympics were two years ago, or that Ted Ligety wouldn’t love a chance at another gold before his career is over.
Four years is a long time in top-level athletics, and it’s very difficult for some competitors to make multiple Olympic teams, let alone remain a contender for medals. Having the Olympics more often would extend the international careers of some of the greatest athletes in the world. How is that a bad thing?
And it’s not like the sports aren’t having competitions anyway. Tell me the international skiing faction wouldn’t love for the World Championships in two years to be held under the Olympic flag. The suggestion wouldn’t necessarily be creating more work for those athletes, it would just be giving them far more exposure for the work they are already doing.
It would, admittedly, be hard for part-time athletes to compete at an Olympic level. Even the fringe sports would need to have full-time training and qualification processes, something that could be supplemented with the increased revenue brought in by holding the events twice as often.
Having said all that, the IOC cannot work inside a bubble. You simply can’t hold an Olympics in the same summer as the World Cup, but putting the Summer Games on an odd-year schedule would easily avoid that scheduling situation.
Increasing the frequency of the Olympics would have an impact on other sports as well, both in terms of professional event scheduling and amateur international competition, but it’s nothing the IOC couldn’t work out.
It’s not a reason not to do it.
So…Can It Work?
Yes, I know this reads like I’m just being a sentimentalist. Consider I’ve had my heartstrings tugged a dozen times a day for two weeks before you judge.
The Olympics seem a bit like camp as a kid. For two weeks' time, we get to meet new friends, do new things and forget about all the other parts of our lives that we care more about the rest of the year.
Camp is awesome, but it’s expensive, and it starts to get old after a while. Sometimes it’s nice to get back to reality (and indoor plumbing). And while you promise every year you are going to stay in touch with those friends and keep those relationships strong through the rest of the year—the curling national championships are being held an hour from my house in March—you never do.
You try, or you say you’ll try, but you never do.
The Olympics are just like that: an escape from reality for a few weeks before getting back to the things that matter more. We love camp, and we’ll always think about how great camp was, but we couldn’t survive there all year. The same can be said for most Olympic events.
Still, we went back to camp every summer. We didn’t have to wait two (or four) years to go back, just so we could love it that much more. Your birthday wouldn’t matter more if you only had one every other year. Why would the Olympics?